Monday, 8 December 2014
The Hollies "Stay With The Hollies" (1964)
"The Hollies "Stay With The Hollies"
Talkin' Bout You/ Mr Moonlight/You Better Move On/Lucille/Baby Don't Cry/Memphis (Tennessee)/Stay//Rockin' Robin/What'cha Gonna Do 'Bout It?/Do You Love Me?/It's Only Make Believe/What Kind Of Girl Are You?/Little Lover/Candyman
Before rock and roll got pompous, before it became de rigueur to reach for the stars via mellotrons and epic song-suites, rock and roll was fun. Once every generation for decades now we seem to go through this cycle: bands discover how much fun rock and roll is to play before becoming more and more aware over their time of their need to improve, to knock off the raw edges and to think deeply - and by the time those bands discover just how to perfect that, another younger hungrier band is in the wings wanting to start the whole cycle off again. Not many musical historians seem to rate The Hollies, who were always on the fringes of success - always doomed to be on the edge of the spotlight that fell fully on other famous 60s bands without gaining the reputation of lurking in the shadows like some others. But I put it to you, dear readers, that of all the many reinventions of the wheel and 'rock music is fun' cycles there have been down the years (the 50s, Merseybeat, punk, 90s rock, 00s rock) no band has ever had as much fun in a recording studio as the early Hollies. Their debut record 'Stay With The Hollies' might not be their finest moment - heck, it's not even in the same league as comparatively polished debut albums from other groups later in the decade, from 'The Who Sing My Generation' to 'The Rolling Stones'. However 'Stay With The Hollies' is perhaps the best conversion of a band's pre-fame setlist into the studio, with EMI bravely resisting the idea of 'nonsense' novelty songs (alas the Hollies weren't so lucky in their choice of singles!) or the need to 'dampen down' the enthusiasm and adrenalin of the performances. 'Stay With The Hollies' is - even more than period albums like 'Please Please Me' and 'Meet The Searchers' - high octane energy and enthusiasm, delivered by a band with such power they could be performing for the stage instead of a bunch of bored white-coated engineers (why did Abbey Road engineers wear white coats anyway?...) and with such gusto you'd be hard pressed to realise that their first time inside a studio had been as recently as April 1963. The Searchers and the Stones and even the very earliest Beatles records find the respective groups sound slightly edgy in their early performances, slightly inhibited by the austere settings and the clock-watching going on. The Hollies, too, struggle to make the nursery rhyme first single 'Ain't That Just Like Me' or the slightly twee Coasters cover 'Searchin' work for them. On this first album, however, all that timidity and doubt is forgotten: The Hollies sound born for this, charismatic and ready to give their all.
The biggest thing you take away from this album is how well the band clearly know each other: the rhythm section drive the songs on, Tony Hick's guitar beefs up the sound and the Clarke and Nash vocals sit on the top like a gloriously thick layer of icing on a multi-layered cake. That makes sense given that singers Allan and Graham had known each other virtually as long as they can remember - ever since a day somewhere towards the first term at primary school where Clarke's family moved to Manchester and he enrolled at the local Ordsell Primary School. Luckily for musical history the only spare seat was next to Nash and the pair will be getting each other in and out of trouble for most of the rest of their lives (despite a for-most-people friendship-ending break at the age of 11 when the pair went to different secondary schools). Their telepathy is a key factor of these early Hollies albums and especially this first one, where the pair egg each other on with whoops, yells and hollers, looking out for each other and covering any missed notes with delightful harmonies the way singing best (and Clarke's thrilling signature cry of 'wooooooooooah shhhhhhhhhake!') should. For a time the pair toured as a 'brothers' act, 'Ricky and Dane' - and while the scrawny artistic and tough-jawed Clarke couldn't have looked less like each other even back then, so close were they that many people did believe they were secretly brothers (certainly more people than ever believed the Walker Brothers were related to each other!) istory records that the pair started what became The Hollies - but as so often happens, history is wrong; technically speaking, while Clarke and Nash toured clubs as a vocals-only Everly Brothers-style act usually known as The Two Tones and - after they bought matching guitars of the same name - The Guy Tones, it was Eric Haydock that formed the band that became The Hollies. Known for years as The Deltas, a whole host of leading Manchester named who never quite made it passed through the ranks and the group was already the most prestigious in Manchester by the time Clarke and Nash joined. Silent, sullen Haydock is the band's dark horse, dismissed by many and indeed dismissed by the band as 'unnecessary' after one too many sick days across 1965, but his tough driving power and strength gives their early recordings a weight they need; while Bobby is rightly seen today as one of the decade's best drummers I'd claim the same goes for Eric, whose usually right on the money and - thanks to Abbey Road's more rock-orientated studios compared to Decca and Pye - sounds better than almost every other bass player of his day.
What's stunning about debut album 'Stay With The Hollies' in retrospect is that, while these core three knew each other well after years of gigging together, actually the quintet that walked into Abbey Road in May 1963 to start recording this album had been together barely weeks, with Bobby Elliott replacing original drummer Don Rathbone for the band's third single 'Stay'. Rathbone was an under-rated drummer, far too hard on himself when he decided he was getting in the band's way and decided to make way so they could find stardom (the first two singles had many faults, but the drumming wasn't one of them). However Bobby is clearly the 'right' drummer for this band in a way the more gentlemanly Rathbone could never be: the big powerful punchy sound at the heart of the band, his jazz infused playing is what gives The Hollies the launching pad to fly through the air on this album and every album to come (for Bobby is still with the band now, after 50 years and counting). His years with Shane Fentone and the Fentones gave him a really tough sound the more vocally orientated Two Tones and Deltas never had to learn and The Hollies wouldn't sounds right without him (indeed they don't on parts of the 'Evolution' LP when Bobby - suffering from appendicitis - is too ill to play and gets replaced by Clem Cattini). Even guitarist Tony Hicks, the other member from the 'classic line up' still with the band, only joined the year before on the eve of the band's signing to EMI (when their original guitarist Victor Sylvester considered faced that very difficult early 60s choice between a reliable but boring career and a short term one in music and plumped for the former). Hicks, hired from Manchester's 'other' on-the-fringes-of-fame group The Dolphins, is another major player on this album, his guitar the natural resting place for many of the melodies and - although he wasn't often a singer with The Dolphins - the band discovered to their delight that his voice complemented their perfectly. The hands of the Gods often smiles on young bands, which is why you see so many older ones scratching their heads about where all that luck and fortitude end up (fellow Mancunians Oasis are the perfect example, with everything surpassing expectations pre-1997 and thereafter never living up to them, no matter how much or how little the band try). Fate definitely smiled on The Hollies: how did that many people from four different bands end up in the same room together? How did that blend of Everly Brothers harmonic folk, tough guy rock and jazz end up working together as well as it did? How did these five men - who were, with the exception of Clarke and Nash, rivals rather than friends for most of their professional lives up this album - get on so well together? (Yes The Hollies had their rows - and big, career changing ones too - but there was none of the harsh sniping that beset The Stones or outward hostility as shown by The Kinks and The Who). Even the name seems fortuitous: picked out at desperation by a band who'd agreed to use a different name than The Deltas seeing as one of their members were left, an unknown member of the band claim to have chosen it after going on stage near Christmas and spying 'holly' hanging over the stage door (a pun on the name of key influence 'Buddy Holly' akin to the 'beat' one in 'The Beatles', it's very clever and very in keeping with the times).
However fortune isn't quite on the band's side just yet. The Beatles had two of the greatest songwriters the world has ever known (three once the 60s gets going), a manager who believed in them to the point of giving up a cosy job with the family firm and a producer who, while at first slightly sceptical, soon warms to the band placed in his charge. The Hollies didn't really have any of that, although Ron Richards - George Martin's assistant and the man responsible for getting his boss down from the canteen the day The Beatles auditioned because he recognised their talent in seconds - tries hard to cover the last two roles and make up for the first by encouraging the band to trust their 'ears' (the band were encouraged to look for new and inventive records they could re-do and Tony Hicks, especially, picked up a real ear for hearing hits at the end of submitted reels of songs or desperate lists sent in by wannabe songwriters). Richards is as integral to The Hollies' sound as George Martin was to The Beatles and perhaps deserves even more praise given that his band were generally knocking out hits quicker, locked in the smaller studio number three where The Beatles claimed the bigger studio two at their beck and call day and night after the first few months. Indeed, The Beatles is where The Hollies' luck runs out: before meeting Epstein The Beatles were clearly far less respected in Liverpool than The Hollies were in Manchester and the Mancunians were far more likely to be 'signed'. While The Beatles' success paved the way for their own signing with EMI (where they lucked out in terms of the facilities and the 'sound' of their records, more polished than Pye and less murky than Decca) and Epstein himself expressed an interest in signing the band (vetoed, probably rightly, because the Beatles took up too much of his time), The Hollies were doomed to stay in the fab four's shadows from the minute the ink dried on their contracts. From here on in The Beatles are groomed as EMI's biggest pay packet, their most adventurous and exploitable export - The Hollies are by contrast doomed to be the 1960's Mr Consistents, actually scoring even more top twenty hits in the 1960s than The Beatles did, although with just one number one that decade to their credit compared to the fab's 18 or 19 depending which chart you use (this wasn't by lack of talent either - The Hollies' releases were usually strategically released whenever The Stones had a single out, so that The Beatles were never in direct competition with their biggest rivals for top of the charts). In a world without The Beatles, The Hollies would still have been big - with that much talent and that much interest in them, even before the 'Northern boom', that much is inevitable - perhaps a lot bigger than they ever had a chance to become.
However they would probably never have been as big as The Beatles. I say that not out of any disrespect for the talents - in fact given a choice between rescuing all my Hollies LPs or my Beatles LPs from some incoming catastrophe, it would be The Hollies every time (after the nervous breakdown and decades of counselling from something so ghastly happening, of course - and I mean about losing my records here, obviously, not whatever's in store for planet Earth, that I can cope with as long as I have music as my soundtrack to coping). I say that simply because there's one vital lacking ingredient from 'Stay With The Hollies' which is where The Beatles, for once, win out. The Hollies were not a natural writing band - not yet anyway (though goodness knows that changes, some of the Clarke-Hicks-Nash and indeed Clarke-Sylvester-Hicks compositions are the greatest in my collection). Indeed they probably wouldn't have bothered at all if it wasn't for The Beatles gaining such a reputation as, like their rivals initially, they formed purely out of love for 1950s American music and a desire to pass that on to the masses. Had The Hollies been the first big success of the 1960s then the movement may have died out when Merseybeat did, with the band lacking the direction to channel the past decade and the current one into their own material. Clarke and Nash (who haven't yet teamed up with Hicks) are game for anything in this period and duly turn out their second ever original 'Little Lover' for this album. The results aren't great: while a fun song, it's clearly not in the same league as 'I Saw Her Standing There' or 'Please Please Me'. Things will change and change quickly (second album 'In The Hollies Style' features half a dozen original songs, each as good as anything The Beatles had to offer in 1964), but for now The Hollies are lagging ever so slightly behind and sadly are never quite allowed to catch up (although I'll still take most of what they made in their annabilus mirabilis of 1967 over what The Beatles did that year).
Modern record collectors are spoilt; all those great sounds of the early 1960s and so little time to hear them all and all that, so naturally they tend to go for original songs they can't hear anywhere else rather than R and B stuff covered by everyone from The Stones to Herman's Hermits. As a result The Hollies and especially this debut record tend to get short shrift: 'Do You Love Me?' (a hit for Brian Poole and the Tremeloes), 'Rockin' Robin' (not yet recorded by - half of them aren't born yet - but forever associated with The Jackson Five and with an unfortunate association with cheesy karaoke sessions), 'Mr Moonlight' (later covered By The Beatles), 'It's Only Make Believe' (one of Conway Twitty's biggest hits), 'You Better Move On' (even now being recorded by The Rolling Stones), 'Talkin' Bout You' (very soon to be recorded by The Rolling Stones), the much-covered 'Memphis Tennessee' and 'Lucille'...at times 'Stay With The Hollies' feels like a 'whose who?' of early 1960s rock and roll repertoires. While The Beatles have showstoppers like 'Twist and Shout' and 'Money' in their act (heralded as classics by core fans long before they were famous, along with 'Some Other Guy' - oddly only ever recorded at a BBC session), The Stones had 'Everybody Needs Somebody To Love' and even The Searchers had 'pinched' the Hollies song 'Ain't That Just Like Me?' and turned into a thrilling five minute showstopper, The Hollies had no such identity. Their stage act consists of anything, sometimes everything that was popular, all learnt from the singles that their fans most likely had at home anyway - hits by Chuck Berry, Arthur Alexander, Little Richard et al. Unlike The Beatles, The Hollies seem content to go for known 'A' sides rather than obscure 'B' sides (or perhaps EMI weren't as keen on taking risks with their 'second' group?), at least not until album number two: as a result there's little on this first record that isn't done better somewhere by somebody (and usually, the original is best).
That's the downside of this record; the upside is that you've never heard these songs done like this. Even the comparatively energetic Beatles never tore the house down and set alight to it with quite the same vigour and excitement The Hollies use here. None of these songs are 'played' - instead all are 'lived', to the maximum, with fully live no-overdubs band performances that feature all five men pushing to the limits. 'Do You Love Me?' might not be as sophisticated or as listenable as Brian Poole's but it's a lot more fun, pushed at a hundred miles an hour to a thrilling climax. 'Mr Moonlight', while still a terrible song (and an odd choice for two of the 1960's finest bands) is far less gauche and irritating than The Beatles' better known version. 'Memphis' tears along with the subtlety of a steam train - actually quite an accurate reflection of a song about a father figure being 'torn apart' by a postal code's worth of difference. 'Lucille' is so dementedly bursting with energy it makes even creator Little Richard sound like a nicely behaved young man. 'You Better Move On' loses out on the smoky danger of Mick Jagger's version, but it's tighter and more polished than the Stones' rather sloppy backing. 'It's Only Make Believe' may be raw to a fault, but it's a lot more emotionally powerful than Conway Twitty's bordering-on-twee country original. Ray Charles' 'What Kind Of Girl Are You?' rather misses the point of the original. Even 'Rockin' Robin' sounds like a 'proper' rock song rather than a throwaway novelty about singing birds, a sort of ADHD version of Michael Jackson but without that annoying smugness. And as for third single and de facto title track 'Stay' - a number one hit for The Zodiacs in 1960, incidentally the shortest single ever to top the US charts at just 1:50 - it's the difference between night and day. Or at least, it's the difference between the 'old' and the 'new guard, because whilst the material on 'Stay With The Hollies' is decidedly 1950s (much more so than most of their competitors) this one (and follow-up 'Style') may well be the definitive 'Merseybeat' albums (ok, the band didn't come from anywhere near The Mersey but still...): loud, proud and enthusiastic, ready to take away the gloom and the austerity of the 1950s with a crash of the cymbals, a twirling guitar lick and a sudden rush of harmonies. Are these songs as sophisticated as some of the other covers around or even the originals? Heck no - but thanks to some of the liveliest rawest performances ever recorded I'd still take The Hollies' versions over almost all of their competitors almost every time. Wooooooooahhhhh Shhhhhaaaaake!
Of course this album isn't perfect: a lot of the song choices are daft ('What Kind Of Girl?' pushed the Hollies harmonies to their limits, 'What'cha Gonna Do 'Bout It?' is dreary, 'Baby Don't Cry' is silly, the 'new' song 'Little Lover' is the most derivative song The Hollies ever wrote and even The Hollies can't make a rotten song like 'Mr Moonlight' sound good). Compared to every other Hollies album, from the nicely sophisticated sequel 'In The Hollies Style' upwards, this album is often a sloppy mess, with parts coming and going in a sea of noise and confusion. Even the album cover - the band sitting round a chair against a papier mache background in hideous 1950s jumpers - is their worst, giving off a quite different vibe of 'gormless' and 'traditional' quite at odds with the record (the band should really have shot their art department, who don't start capturing the band's image properly until the 1970s, but even by later standards this one is a shocker; however it is one of the few photographs known to exist of drummer Bobby Elliott with hair instead of his usual cap or wig!) If its sophistication you want then there are thousands of other 1960s albums out there that can do the job better. However if it's fun you're after, shallow but really enjoyable, lose-yourself-in-the-moment life-has-never-been-this-exciting wooooooahhhhh-shhhhaaaake! fun you're after, then you need to stay with The Hollies, through this record and every other one. As David Block's surprisingly on-the-money (for a debut record) sleevenotes have it, this isn't 'background music', with a 'get up and dance' impact. Usually I hate music made to dance rather than listen to, but these performances are so good - the harmonies so thrilling, the bass so powerful, the drumming so aggressive, the guitar so melodic - that just for once I'm willing to make an exception: this record should really have been titled 'Impossible To Stay Still With The Hollies...'
Chuck Berry's 'Talkin' Bout You' is an explosive start to any album, especially the way The Hollies do it: high octane energy take-no-prisoners rock and roll. Chuck's original is sleepy, content to murmur to himself about the new love he's found and whilst almost all of the cover versions speeds things up (The Stones' version sounds like the narrator's having a nervous breakdown he's that frisky) The Hollies pack the heaviest and hardest punch of the lot. Clarke barks the song out with a real power (never has the word 'Hollywood' been sung with more earthy grit), Hicks' guitar solo is both fussier and more streamlined than Chuck's original and the rhythm section proud and poke at the song throughout. This isn't romantic love, it's pure infatuation and in The Hollies version the narrator is hypnotised, under her spell and eager to rush headfirst into things. One of the better early Hollies covers, this song dispenses with all the arch nodding winks of the original and becomes something more straightforward and exciting, with even Clarke's unusual falsetto 'oohs' and 'wooooaaaah shhhhhaaaakes!' ringing true here. Like much of the rest of the album, The Hollies are a real team here and all play their part and while there may be more sophisticated and polished performances of others' material to come, few songs match this one for pure energy and excitement. By the way, the original sleevenotes (recklessly reproduced without changing on CD) are 'wrong': this isn't a Ray Charles song but a Chuck Berry one; equally 'What Kind Of Girl Are You?' really is a Ray Charles song, however it's been credited here.
'Mr Moonlight' is an old Dr Feelgood song, actually only the B-side of a song actually called 'Dr Feelgood' released in 1962. At the time this would have been the most obscure cover song on this album seeing as neither side of the single was a hit. Nowadays of course people know it best from the rather ropey version filling up two and a half minutes of 'Beatles For Sale', but for some reason lots of Northern bands covered this one and The Hollies beat both The Beatles and a Merseybeats version to record by the best part of a year. Whgich is odd because it's not a natural fit for The Hollies: while they add their typical pounding rhythm section there's less for them to do and swapping the vocals between Clarke and Nash (in what was effectively his first lead vocal for the band) doesn't work as well as elsewhere. Tony clearly doesn't know the song that well (it must have been in the Deltas set rather than the Dolphins ones) and he uncharacteristically messes up his guitar solo very badly. Only Eric shines on this one, with a major role given over to the bass part which parps like a demented frog throughout. There's also a horribly cheesy ending pasted on (one of those 'everything will be alright now' I IV V chord progressions that virtually comes with a 'ta-dah!') which the original never had. To be fair though at least The Hollies dispense with the awful organ sound of the original, something that The Beatles kept for some reason and at least their version gets moving: neither version ranks amongst the respective bands' better moments but The Hollies easily win this mini-war.
Regular readers will know that I adore Arthur Alexander, the finest writer of the 1950s whose handful of songs were almost all recorded by the early 1960s bands. Sadly 'You Better Move On' is the only song of his The Hollies ever tackled and while one of his most famous isn't one of his best and certainly not one of his most suitably Hollie-like, with his typical drawn out emotion pushed a little past all believability (a Clarke-filled version of 'Soldiers Of Love' or 'Anna' though would have been sensational...) The Hollies sound like they've stretched the elastic a little too far with the emotion here: Clarke's voice cracks under the strain and Nash's chirper supporting harmony sounds strangely miscast (his additional 'well let me tell you know that' a very 60s idea stapled onto what was already seen as an untouchable 50s classic). The Hollies always were and always will be a great ballads band, able to convince on slow songs, but this ballad is still being treated as if its just a slow rock song and is played with the same heavy-handed attack which makes it not one thing or another. Few Hollies song drag, especially early Hollies songs, but the full 2:48 of this song seems like a lot longer somehow by the time the band navigate the song's tricky chord structures in slow motion, the song only really coming alive for the yearning middle eight ('I can't blame you for loving her...') where at last Clarke and Nash's vocal acrobatics make sense. Erm, we'd better move on...
'Lucille' sounds mighty good in the hands of lots of people, but particularly The Hollies'. A straight ahead no frills version, this Lucille is dark and hypnotic without the cheeky charm of Little Richard's original (the closing track on his self-titled' 'Little Richard' album in 1958). Most 'Lucilles' sound exotic - to British listeners at least - a 'hip' variation of our 'Lucy' and her playful games at 'hiding' from the narrator sound like the sort of thing an exotically named playful girl would do. The Hollies' version, though, is a howl of pain and desperation, pleading with her to come home with extended vocals that sounds like sobbing (instead of 'Lu-seey-al!' with a little hiccup at the end, her name here is pronounced by The Hollies as a much sadder sounding Looooo-seeeeee-ille'). Chances are the band learnt this song from The Everly Brothers' arrangement (from 'A Date With The Everly Brothers' 1960) or at least the vocals, although even these sound quite different - perhaps because the intensity of Little Richard's original is maintained in the backing too. Hicks somehow manages to make this much-repeated guitar riff work for him, adding his characteristic 'clear' tones, while his manic guitar solo is far trickier than the original, pointing the way forward to the little bursts of energy The Kinks will go on to record. Bobby meanwhile treats this song as a jazz number, with lots of exotic cymbal bashing unusual for rock and roll this early. Over the top of this soars one of the greatest Clarke-Nash-Hicks three way harmonies of them all - one of the very earliest to feature Tony in fact and all three sound remarkably good, doing different things but in perfect synchronisation. The song then climaxes with an unexpected 'wooooah' pause before a short drum break, thrilling stuff that no other cover I've heard has ever quite matched. 'Lucille' is a winner for The Hollies, proof that they can rock with the best of bands around in 1964 (once again their version puts even The Beatles' version - admittedly only ever sung on a BBC session - to shame) and nicely inventive rather than simply being another poor copy of the original.
'Baby Don't Cry' is another obscure song - so obscure that the only mentions of it on the internet all refer solely to The Hollies' version (is this an early version of them picking out a song from an unknown writer?) Sadly it's not that suitable for them, putting The Hollies (who despite the suits and the angelic vocals are amongst the toughest sounding of bands around in 1964) firmly in the 'Freddie and the Dreamers/Herman's Hermits' 'cute' bracket. The narrator's girl wants to cry '24 hours of everyday', while he's a happy go lucky charmer who wants her to dance. Clearly this couple have a lot of therapy and understanding of each other to be getting on with and the narrator's paranoid re-action to her tears recalls Ray Davies' similar 'Stop Your Sobbing' from later in the year (not as unlikely an inspiration as it sounds: The Kinks looked up to The Hollies after a 1963 bill where the Mancunians were the stars and the Muswell Hillbillies were bottom of the bill; The Davies brothers never forgot Nash's kind intervention to tell their management to 'shut up and leave them alone' because they were 'doing fine'). While the band try to do their usual 'tough guy' strut it doesn't quite work here: Eric's 'ba-da-dah!' bass lines are just daft and Bobby's repeated drum lick silly and a cheesy '1-2-3!' ending suggests that even the band are aware that they have to do something to brighten this song up. The sort of thing other bands were hiding away on B-sides, you wonder why this song made the album when so many fine songs such as 'When I'm Not There' 'What Kind Of Love' and 'Poison Ivy' (all recorded by this point) either ended u[p on the cutting room floor or edged out onto EPs.
'Memphis Tennessee' (here shortened simply to 'Memphis') is a second Chuck Berry classic (Who'd have thought it? A Hollies debut with more Chuck Berry songs on it as The Rolling Stones' first record!) One ofv the finest records of the 1950s, this features one of the mothers of all guitar riffs, one which the Hollies cleverly alter so that they play it between two guitars and bass, the three overlapping at times to give even more feeling of 'movement' and 'tension'. It's the lyrics though that are great on this song: throughout this 'divorce' song seems to be about a boy and a girl going their separate ways and living in separate postcodes with the 'Memphis Tennessee' postal address sounding like a shining beacon of salvation. The last verse reveals that the narrator couldn't care less about the girlfriend - it's the six year old daughter 'Marie' he longs to stay in contact with, a revelation which adds extra poignancy to the song. The Hollies seem to be oblivious to this 'twist', though, chugging along throughout the track as if this is simply an 'obvious' part of the song, although I'll forgive them anything for turning that slinky backbeat of Chuck's original into a powerhouse of a rock song the way they do. The pause at the end of every vocal line for the guitar part (angrily nagging away and saying everything the narrators can't, perhaps) is a particular masterstroke. With the best 'wooooaaaahhhh shhhhaaaake!' of the entire record and a marvellously exciting instrumental 'breakout' in the middle, this is another of The Hollies' all-time best cover songs, an expert song expertly played.
'Stay' is The Hollies' breakthrough hit. The song may only have made #8 in the charts and they may have had two top twenty hits already, but it's where their high energy-with-smiles sound starts. Maurice Williams' 'Zodiacs' original is both quieter and more reserved than The Hollies' version: it's a polite invitation to a girl not to leave because they're having an enjoyable time; The Hollies' version is a swinging party this girl wouldn't want to miss if her life depended on it. The perfect vehicle for The Hollies' tigger style bounce, this song is cleverly rewritten to their strengths. Bobby's first recording session alters the band's sound considerably with some excellent hard-hitting Keith Moon style drumming that somehow never gets in the way and which gives Eric plenty of space to have fun rather than simply nail the bass root notes down. Tony's cheeky wink of a guitar is clever too. However it's the vocals that make this song, with all three singers given key roles (Instead o having Tony quietly doubling Nash an octave below, as normal). The result might not be that deep, but it's very catchy and infectious fun, with so much going on your ear barely knows where to turn next. Legend has it that Williams didn't think much of this song when he wrote ut, but kept it in the act when a ten-year-old in the audience the first night he played it said it was her favouritest song ever and he had to keep it - or else. You wonder if the same girl heard The Hollies' version, which without the polite restraints of the 1950s is even more infectious and a whole lot easier to love. At last, after two nearlies, The Hollies 'style' has arrived.
Side two starts with a surprisingly tough version of 'Rockin' Robin', a single originally by Bobby Day (using his pseudonym Jimmie Thomas) and a number two US hit single in 1958 some 14 years before Michael Jackson's version. Both of those other versions sound like a comedy novelty record that could have been a Disney cartoon, with a tweeting bird and his groove the talk of the town. The Hollies' hard hitting version dispenses with all that schmaltz to turn this song into an epic rocker, with Tony and Graham yelling 'twee! Twiddly dee!' at the tops of their voices as if this is all of the greatest importance. Clarke's smoky lead is fantastic, completely ignoring the banality of the lyric (for instance the line 'A-hopping and a bopping and a singing his song' is sung with a Roger Daltrey style snarl, not that the world at ;large has any idea who Roger Daltrey is for another year). Eric and Bobby are again on terrific form,. the song nailed to the floor by a loud 'hmm' from Haydock's bass, while the expressive fun of the song is expressed by a fiery drum rattle that sounds more like a bunch of very fat and scary pigeons than a humble robin. Yes The Hollies should have put all that fire and energy into a better song, but the result is a lot better than anyone might have been expecting: a comedy song done as a serious one and with a real groove behind it.
Alas Doris Payne's 'What'cha Gonna Do 'Bout It?' is the wrong song for the wrong band. This song is a 'grower' that needs to build stage by stage, sung in a subtle and sexy way by a Mick Jagger rather than smashed to smithereens by an Eric Burdon. Sadly that's the approach The Hollies take, starting hard and aggressive ('Ou-u-u-u-u-u-u-r love yeah-yeah-yeah') and getting heavier and heavier throughout the song to the point where these flimsy lyrics sink under all that weight. The lyrics deserve better actually, slowly sinking into defeat as the narrator gets madder and madder as he tries to find a way out for a relationship but snaps to his girl that she's not taking this seriously, that 'you just won't comprehend'. There's a line in the second verse I could never get but which the online lyric websites all seem to agree is 'sugar-pie' - it doesn't sound like that to me ('Sugar puff' perhaps but not 'sugar-pie'!) and that in itself is a sign of how 'wrong' this song is: usually The Hollies' diction is the best in the business (I bet they wouldn't even have murmured the words to 'Louie Louie'!) The result is odd - on its own this is a fine song that deserves to be better known and on face value the band's performance here is as committed and cleverly made as any other. But the two don't fit: it's like an abstract rendering of the Mona Lisa, or a punk version of 'My Way' (which as Sid Vicious proved, isn't as fun as it sounds).
'Do You Love Me?' has a long and complex history. Berry Gordy wrote the song and tried to sell it to The Temptations - but despite his prestigious name they passed, claiming it was daft. The song was a hit for Motown band The Contours in 1962 though, a novelty song written solely to cash in on the names of two current hit 'dances' ('the twist' and 'the mashed potato' - which incidentally sounds like a pretty accurate representation of my dancing). Legend has it that The Contours - about to be dropped by the label after a run of flop singles - so recognised the song's potential that they gave Gordy a 'bear hug' right then and there, which nearly saw him take the song off them again! The song peaked at number three and was covered by oodles of Merseybeat acts: Faron's Flamingos were the first, then the Dave Clark Five, then Brian Poole and the Tremeloes (who had the biggest hit with it in the UK). Their version became even bigger after aptly appearing in 1987 blockbuster 'Dirty Dancing'. So why did The Hollies try to compete with all that competition on a song that really doesn't sound like them? The band completely mis-read the opening spoken word section (one of the most embarrassing moments in their canon) and while Clarke's guttural cries on the song proper and Nash and Hicks' falsetto replies are fun neither are exactly classic Hollie moments. The narrator pleads for a second chance with a girl whose dumped him because he was a poor dancer and he's been up all night practising. Only in the 1950s (perhaps the 1980s) could this have happened: any other era would have had the boy telling her to get lost (the 70s), inventing his own dance and wowing everybody his own way (90s) or painting out how groovy the world is if people could just stay still (the 60s). Or, quite possibly, having the girl in a jungle landscape proving that she can dance better than he can however hard he tries (the 00s). This song just sounds 'wrong' for 1964 somehow: love shouldn't rest on mere dancing alone and however gritty Clarke's vocal is (a world away from The Tremeloes' gentlemanly performance) he can't make up for the fact that this is a silly song about a silly art form. The song sags long before we hit the 2:13 mark and even an inventive 'bom bom bom bom bom' section can't add the Hollie stamp to this mess. If I was one of the Contours and Berry Gordy (writer of such fine songs as 'Reet Petite' 'I Want You Back' and especially 'Money (That's What I Want)' had offered me this silly song I'd have throttled him, not hugged him. The fact that I can't dance is not, repeat not, the reason I'm feeling bitter here by the way, no sirree...
The next album highlight is Conway Twitty's 'It's Only Make Believe', a song that really is perfect for The Hollies and which few other 60s bands could have covered so well. Twitty's annoyingly faux-country original is insincere and insipid, but The Hollies sing from the heart on a song about falling in love when it's unreciprocated. The band finally master the art of dynamics, starting off low and slow and building note by note to being high and fast (in a manner of speaking). This lovely song is so fragile it might break, so the band are careful to wrap it up in lots of Hollie cotton wool, with a delightful harmonic blend from Clarke and Nash (Hicks doesn't sing on this one) and a gentle backing, where even Hicks' slightly crackled entrance of guitar sounds dangerous and daring. The Hollies often sang about infatuation and this song is one of their best examples of this, an early attenpt at the 'sudden switch of gears' technique they'll pull of spectacularly in songs like 'I'm Alive' and close cousin 'Honey and Wine'. This time there's less contrast going on - the song dampens down thanks to a brilliant lengthy Hicks guitar solo rather than a minor key verse - but the effect is the same: this song is a 'journey' for the narrator and a song on which everyone (listener included) feels like they've learnt something by the end of the song. Thankfully future Hollies albums will feature more songs like this and less like 'Do You Love Me?' - 1950s minor hits that never quite fulfilled their potential, given the uptempo 100% Hollies commitment and transformed into gems of the highest order.
By contrast 'What Kind Of Girl Are You?' is unusually scrappy. Unusually for a 1960s band, there aren't that many alternate mixes of Hollies songs doing the rounds (compared to The Small Faces, say, where each song has been dissected at least half a dozen times). However In own one terrible remix of this song for some cheap compilation album that puts the emphasise firmly on the vocals and ducks the instruments in the mix and which shows up just what a mess this recording is. Clarke and Nash are off key and both sound like they've got heavy colds (although given that this song was recorded along with four others that made this album during the first session for it on December 11th 1963 that seems unlikely), straining and gurning for each note. The backing is stronger, with a sweet doo-ba-ba-ba dee-ba-ba-ba-dum drum lick from Bobby that finishes off each verse in style and perhaps the greatest Hicks guitar solo of the record: aggressive, loud and raucous but still delightfully tuneful. But the song is taken too slowly for full impact and even another thrilling 'wooooaaaah shhhhaaaake!' can't get the band out of this one! Interestingly the band will go on to record songs titled 'What Kind Of Boy?' and 'What Kind Of Love?' suggesting that this sort of rhetorical questioning song was seen as a sort of template to follow rather than a song to avoid. Bizarrely, this Ray Charles song - which again The Hollies probably learnt from an Everly Brothers cover on 1960 LP 'It's Everly Time' - is credited to 'Capehart and Campbell' on the album sleeve, suggesting that someone at EMI heard a Glenn Campbell version and assumed they'd written the original (Jerry Capehart is Glenn's usual writing partner across the 1960s).
'Little Lover' is another scrappy performance where - perhaps uniquely for a published performance rather than an outtake - the band get the words wrong (on the second verse: 'Trying to forget you' sings Clarke; goodness knows what Nash is singing but it clearly isn't that!) This reveals just how hurried the performance was and perhaps how new the song was, being one of the earliest Hollies originals (although not the first; 'Whole World Over' had already appeared as the B-side to first single 'Ain't That Just Like Me?') While not up to the Chuck Berry and Arthur Alexander classics on the album, The Hollies are already about best of the rest, with a fun song that manages to rhyme ''love and discover' in a cute catchy chorus and features a driving 50s pastiche rocker style on the verses. The band are having a ball (so no wonder Ron Richards let that mistake pass!) with Tony and Graham answering Clarke's terrifically razor-sharp vocal. Indeed, like 'Rockin' Robin', you wouldn't believe from just the 'sound' and energy of this song that this song was about anything less important than the end of the world and the result is a killer performance that's one of the best on the album, with all the band delivering where they need to. The Hollies songs will get better, and quickly, but as a band they're already right on the money.
The song then ends with perhaps the single best performance of the whole of this first LP, with Clarke especially at his best on a hard-nosed cover of Reverend Gary Davis' (yes he really was both a vicar and a blues singer!) 'Candyman'. Allan's vocals purr and tear away at the fabric of the song, as the band rock up the slow slinky original where a man promises all sorts of sweet goodies (clearly a euphemism for something - though the jury's still out on exactly what; sex or drugs or both?), making a rock song out of a blues one. This is prime Yardbirds territory, actually, more than Hollies but the band are rarely better, with Clarke belying his mere 22 years of age to sound like a wizened, hardened adult and his overdubbed harmonica playing is excellent too (especially on the mono version, where it's better mixed than the stereo for some reason, leaving a few half-hearted puffs in that are clearly 'mistakes'). The rest of the band are tight, too, as evidenced by the stop-start section just before the finale (The Beatles messed up horribly when they tried a similar trick later in the year on 'Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby'). This will start a tradition of Hollies albums ending on updated blues songs and while 'Candy Man' isn't quite the best, it's still very good and brings this first patchy album to a thrilling conclusion.
Overall, then, 'Stay With The Hollies' is a curious debut record. It doesn't quite have the breadth of vision of 'My Generation' or the sheer adventurousness of 'Please Please Me' or 'Rolling Stones'. But when The Hollies are on form a lot of their performances are better than all three, making even the most unlikely candidates rock and roll with the best of them. If only the band had had more faith in their own material and been more keen on digging around for obscurer songs no one else was doing then 'Stay With The Hollies' could have been a masterpiece. As it is, though, its still a very overlooked debut and as an eclectic album as any released in 1964, featuring not just high octane rock and roll but a bit of blues and country and Motown too. The Hollies are clearly staying around for a long long time to come and even though this start isn't bad by any means things are going to get a lot better very soon - with a superior sequel out before the end of the year...Wooooooaaaah Shhhhhaaaake!